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XTRA Debate: Is Eurovision ready for app voting?

Balancing act between a technological advances and exposed voting flaws

Welcome to our new feature here at ESCXTRA.com! Every Monday, we will be offering you a debate from the world of the Eurovision Song Contest. Our first topic is one plenty of people have spoken about, but where do we stand? Today, we will be discussing the pros and cons of app voting in the Eurovision Song Contest.

App voting: A history

In recent years, app voting has become more and more popular. Many competitions have chosen to opt for a way to let fans express their opinions through an app. It is often a cheap and simple way of making sure your audience is involved. All good, one would say. There are however plenty of arguments why we shouldn’t be working with app voting in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Nick and Oliver have given the matter some thought. Read below what they think!

Nick: Why I do not want app voting… yet

I am not a fan of app voting. Yet. The way we’ve seen it being used so far is not encouraging for the future. I would like to explain why in three points: Fraud, possible results and technical difficulties.

An increase of fraud

Over the past few years, Eurovision has been hit with a couple of scandals. Those have not particularly helped the reputation of the contest. One of those was the voting fraud at the Eurovision Song Contest 2013 in Malmö, where certain countries seemed to make sure they would get plenty of votes. Where this was a big issue, I think it would get worse if we were to introduce the app. App voting is, usually, a free way of voting. With it, you make sure your fans get involved for no cost at all.

SMS/Telephone voting charges you for your vote. There’s a certain element of ‘sacrifice’ when you decide to cast a vote, as you will need to pay for it. If we were to remove that, I fear the amount of fraud attempts would increase massively. With votes no longer depending on being paid for, it will be much easier to hand out a couple of phones with the app on it to ask people to vote for that one specific song.

Just look at Melodifestivalen

We all enjoy a close contest, where we have to wait until the final minute to figure out who has won the show. If we take a look at Melodifestivalen, who have used app voting for a few years now, I think we’d be off way worse with the app voting. In 2014, the televoters had Anton Ewald last with 3% of the vote. The winner was Sanna Nielsen, with 25.8%. In points, that meant Anton received 14 and Sanna 122.

If we now take a look at 2017, we see a completely different image. Robin Bengtsson was the jury winner, with 96 points, followed by Nano with 76. With Nano being the runaway favourite for the televoting, the tension was there: Could he overcome the difference of twenty points? The clear answer was no. The app voting made sure last placed Lisa Ajax had 6.2% of the vote (30 points), with Nano winning it with 11.9% (57 points). In 2018, we see a similar pattern.

What I’m trying to say is that Melodifestivalen has made sure the juries pretty much decide who’s going to win. If they create a gap of twenty points, it is almost impossible to overcome the difference. With fans being less than convinced by the juries in Eurovision, should we really move in a direction where, unless we find a proper solution, juries will appear to have more power than they now do?

A technical drama

It all looks so wonderful on the outside. Give people the chance to vote for their favourite song by clicking an app on their phones and let them do it for free. But mind you, it has the potential to be the biggest disaster ever. I’m going to take you back to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest.

Twice now have the EBU tried to introduce online/app voting at a Eurovision show. The Junior contest has been (un)lucky enough twice now to try it. In 2014, they had a test, which could not affect the final results. Lucky enough for them, as the entire platform crashed as soon as online voting opened.

Last year, they decided to take it away from an app and move towards an online platform. Does this still fit in with the description of app voting? Yes, because the effects were similar to what you’d get with an app. This time, Junior Eurovision had a pre-show vote, as well as a vote during the show. The only method of voting available was the online platform, where you could vote for free. However, the platform was not able to handle the peak traffic of a Junior Eurovision Song Contest on a Sunday afternoon in November. It crashed and was unavailable for most of the voting window, which led to the televoting results being deemed invalid. Now take that picture with you and look at it for a Saturday night in May. I dread to think what would happen in those circumstances. Basically, a website or app will be too sensitive for technical issues.

All in all, I’m not a fan of app voting just yet. There is no way you can guarantee its safety, or even the fact that it will work during the show. If you then get results like in Melodifestivalen, you know you’re not in a good place at all. Until we’ve found a safe way of implementing it, I’m against the app voting.

Oliver: It’s a yes from me!

I am definitely open to the idea of app voting, but think the contest can learn from the last 20 years worth of televoting data to make app voting a success story. App voting could, and should make the modern contest more interactive and could mark a demographic revolution.

National Final’s as a learning opportunity

While I totally agree the app (along with that blasted heart!) has tainted Melodifestivalen, I think it is a great tool for the contest to learn from. 

Initially introduced in 2015, it was clear Christer Björkman and the rest of SVT had no idea how popular the app could be. Looking at the voting stats from that year, you can see a rapid increase of votes semi on semi. Daniel Gildenlow came 7th in the first semi with just 44,4833 votes. Meanwhile, Midnight Boy came last in the fourth semi with 157,793 votes. Similarly, there is a  difference of 322,543 votes between Eric Saade and Måns Zelmerlöw – who won the first and last semi respectively! Show producers underestimated the popularity of the app. The final was a mess. The app broke down early in the running order and was shelved for the rest of the show. Even though the app is much more stable in 2018, Nick is right in suggesting the televote has flatlined over the years. In effect, this warps the weighting in the jury’s favour as the televote becomes an arbitrary add-on. 

However, the televote of Melodifestivalen works on a proportional representation system. Eurovision does not. By retaining the current 1-12 point structure (something I doubt the contest would change anytime soon!), a close televote becomes a moot point. The number of votes a country has recorded is generally kept private, so fans and audiences wouldn’t see the glaring flaw that the Swedish app has exposed. 

Voting via an app would be just be another channel for the public to get behind an act, alongside calling and SMS voting. Eurovision can, and should learn from the mistakes made by Melodifestivalen and other national finals to find a system that would work for the international singing competition.

Inclusivity

There is no question that if Eurovision was to fully embrace app voting, the EBU would need to invest in a strong infrastructure to ensure the validity of any votes cast. If set up properly, an app vote would increase inclusivity and could act as a security measure at the same time. The app could require a user to link up with an established social media platform like Facebook or Twitter. Verifying the identity of the user automaticically updating social media with posts such as such as ‘I just voted for X at Eurovision 20XX! Who are you rooting for?‘ encourages an online conversation. It adds another layer of communication for the contest to gain more exposure and thrive. The voting scandal of 2013 surrounded televoting, almost twenty years on from its inception in the contest!

Let me take you back to the landmark year of 1997, the year of trial televoting. I’m sure many discussions were made at the time about the logistics and legitimacy of a continental vote over a relatively short period of time. Though only a handful of countries trialled televoting, it showed a new and arguably more open-minded voting demographic. Take the criminally underrated ‘Minn hinsti dans’ from Iceland. Only receiving a paltry 18 points, 16 – or around an average of 3.2 – the five countries testing out televoting. Extrapolating that average across every country, Iceland could have made the top 10! Slightly dubious number crunching, but there seems to be an undeniable correlation: televoting enjoyed something the old voting system neglected to recognise. I can’t help but feel that an app voting platform would encourage a new wave of voting demographics…

Implementation

The current structure of the contest lends itself to experimenting with new technology. I would probably suggest that app voting is initially trialled in the semi-finals. That way, the systems can be tested with a reduced electorate.

Practical issues need to be taken into account for the modern, instantaneous era. Issues that are largely ignored would have to be addressed. The contest cannot be seen to ignore or discriminate against participating or prospective countries – such as micro-statesHow would we establish the country of origin in politically charged areas such as Crimea, or micro-states such as San Marino, who depend on Italy’s phone infrastructure? Would app voting be free for users as alluded by Nick, or cost the same as a call or SMS?

Nevertheless, it is right for the contest to be flexible for the potential of change. It is clear that the Eurovision Song Contest is plotting a trajectory of an objective and transparent result. We’ve seen it in recent years, as the jury and public votes have become untethered and the jury weighting has been altered. 

Initially I was a huge sceptic of the voting split that came in 2016. Though I enjoyed it in Melodifestivalen I couldn’t see how it would integrate into Eurovision. Oh how I was wrong. It reinvigorated what had always been a slightly clunky part of the show. 

Ultimately, voting in any event – reality tv, political elections and even Eurovision lends itself to the potential of problematic voting. There is no surefire way of ensuring any method is totally free of corruption, tampering or manipulation. There are absolutely risks to making a voting app for such a big contest. However, to ignore the technological trends would make the contest even more vulnerable. The Eurovision Song Contest must evolve to resonate with the modern age. It would be foolish to allow the contest to stagnate for fear of trying something new! 

Do you think the Eurovision Song Contest should consider developing a voting app? Or would the risks outweigh any benefits? Join in the debate in the comments below and on social media @ESCXTRA!

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